Marcus Aurelius once wrote that “a man’s life is what his thoughts make of it,” and no fewer than two thousand years later this simple fact still rings true – as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” With this seemingly eternal truth in mind, you may be asking yourself, what if I’m not happy with my thoughts? What can I do to change my thought patterns? Can I quiet that chattering voice in my head with its lists and its hang-ups; its nagging, judging, and bullying reprimands and retorts? Or am I forever destined to be a servant to my thoughts?
A good place to start thinking about this scary scenario comes in the shape of the pioneering psychologist William James´s assertive insight. He insisted that “human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind.” Sounds simple? Well, not exactly. But while I’ve discovered that most minds are stubborn, teaching a stubborn mind is almost exactly the same as teaching a stubborn pupil. Taking the time to notice her irritabilities, observing what makes her angry, upset, or distracted, and then, with a few kind words bringing her back to the task at hand is an incredibly effective strategy. And, I´ve also observed that with this strategy in mind over time this child will settle faster, relax in lessons, work better and maybe even become your friend.
The only difference between our mind and the child is we have to live with this inner narrator day in and day out, or even at 3 in the morning! It reminds me of the Pixar movie Inside Out: our inner narrator can sometimes be working overtime, but for the adult brain it’s not always so cute; it can feel like your boss with an endless list of tasks, or like that particularly fastidious friend judging every past decision you’ve made, or perhaps at the worst of times it can even seem like a bully.
But with the simple act of meditation, we can quiet this potentially pernicious chatter and eventually become friends with this narrator.
Indeed, Buddhist teachings claim that this is the source of wisdom.
And this practise is not just confined to Buddhist belief. Clinical studies have shown that after only 2 weeks of 30 minutes´ meditation per day we can change the neurological topography of the brain,
creating new pathways that skip the negative thought spirals and become more focused, kinder, and more contented.
So, how can we apply this in our everyday lives, at school or at work? Feeling stressed? Meditating puts that into perspective and, with practise, you find quick strategies to manage that niggling, simmering tightness in your shoulders and chest and build up emotional resilience. Do you have the feeling that life is rushing by at a million miles per hour and you don’t have time to meet the deadline, complete your homework, fit in piano practise, tennis training, language lessons and find time to socialise? Meditation plunges you in the present, heightening your awareness of the right here, right now and helps you take stock of everything going on with calm, clear perspective and without that dizzying panicky feeling. Do you find yourself turning to your phone for distraction, to block out those negative feelings that bubble under the surface – a snide remark, a bad grade, a sense of injustice? Developing mindfulness and self-awareness helps you see parts of yourself in a more honest light and you learn to channel your energies into what matters most. Remember, we “are what we think about all day long”. Meditation increases patience and perseverance, kindness, tolerance and empathy. Meditation provides genuine joy and well-being.
When I first found this out, it was an easy decision to put down everything and learn to practice meditation. For sure, it is a difficult journey that requires dedication, and it’s true that at times you may encounter what at first seem like dead-ends, but with effort and perseverance you will realise that other paths do lie ahead of you and I can say with confidence that meditation was the most important life-changing decision I ever made.
Note – Meditation has now been incorporated into the curriculum at BCG